Nancy Sebring resigns as Iowa schools chief after sexually explicit emails

9:08 AM, Jun 5, 2012   |    comments
Nancy Sebring. (The Des Moines Register)
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By Mary Stegmeir and Jens Manuel Krogstad, Des Moines Register

In a stunning reversal of fortune, former Des Moines Superintendent Nancy Sebring went from presiding over Iowa's largest school district to losing a new job she had landed to lead the Omaha schools, after disclosure she had used Des Moines school equipment to send and receive sexually explicit emails.

The Omaha school board voted Saturday afternoon without discussion to accept her resignation from the job she was to start July 1.

The vote capped a rapid-fire series of developments that unfolded in less than 20 hours:

8:46 p.m. Friday: The Des Moines Register publishes an online story reporting that Sebring's abrupt, earlier-than-scheduled departure from the Des Moines district May 10 came after she was confronted by school board members about the discovery of the explicit emails.

8:45 a.m. Saturday: In an interview with the Register, Sebring says she has no intention of stepping down as Omaha's superintendent. The Register's editor had informed her a sampling of the explicit emails would be published.

9:14 a.m.: DesMoinesRegister.com publishes the emails.

11:30 a.m.: Sebring submits a letter of resignation to Omaha schools.

Read Nancy Sebring's emails and her contract with Omaha schools on DesMoinesRegister.com

Early afternoon: Some members of the Omaha board publicly voice second thoughts.

"Quite obviously, her profession is endangered," Omaha board member Mary Ellen Drickey tells the Register, hours before she would vote to accept Sebring's resignation. "I was really shocked. I would have hoped it wasn't true. I just have a great deal of compassion for her family and her daughter who is getting married."

Shortly after 3 p.m.: An Omaha board member confirms that Sebring has submitted her resignation.

4:30 p.m. meeting: The board votes 9-1 to accept the resignation. The only allusion to the scandal comes in Sebring's 61-word resignation letter, read aloud at the meeting. It says in part:

"However, due to recent events, I feel my ability to lead the district has been compromised. Thus, I am offering my resignation as superintendent of the Omaha School District."

Reaction to the unfolding story exploded across digital space. Many Facebook commenters criticized Sebring's conduct. Others said her sex life should have remained her private business.

Episode could have national impact Sebring's high-profile professional demise will likely serve as a wake-up call to public officials across the country, local and national leaders in the education sector say.

Maree Sneed, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represents school districts, said Sebring's violation of her employer's Internet use policy was something she's "never seen before - not at that level" as a district superintendent.

"This is really a cautionary tale for all school administrators," she said. "This is something that'll probably be looked at nationally."

Daniel Domench, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said lapses in judgment on the job can be hard to overcome in the education sector.

"Particularly at the school district level, a superintendent should be beyond reproach," Domench said.

Sebring would have earned an annual salary of $206,178 this year in Des Moines, plus a $34,019 annuity contribution and a $6,000 car allowance.

Domench said he wouldn't be surprised if either Omaha or Des Moines adds more specific language to its next superintendent contract.

Emails obtained by a Des Moines Register open records request show that messages to and from Sebring and a male lover were sent using Sebring's official district email account, sometimes on a district-issued laptop and iPad. Some of the messages were sent during the school day. The emails between the two spanned from at least March 26 to May 8. School officials have said the man, who is married, does not work in the district.

The district's technology policy forbids using school computers or email accounts for personal correspondence and also forbids the exchange of sexually explicit materials.

In addition, the school system's handbook for administrators states, "Administrators are expected to lead by example, with honesty and integrity, and refrain from conduct which may be considered unprofessional or inappropriate."

Des Moines school board President Teree Caldwell-Johnson said Saturday the district doesn't plan at this point to change any of its policy language or enforcement procedures. However, she later said the district would consider adding a morality clause to the next superintendent's contract.

Caldwell-Johnson, speaking at a news conference, said the district already has strong rules in place concerning technology use and ethical conduct that are enforced with due diligence.

That's why, she said, Sebring's sexually explicit emails to her lover are "quite frankly, yesterday's news for me. I am moving forward; I am moving on."

When asked if the board could have done anything differently, Caldwell-Johnson said she's comfortable with the decisions made involving Sebring's departure.

"I think I did everything right, and I think the board did everything right," said Caldwell-Johnson, as the entire school board stood behind her except vice president Dick Murphy, who was attending a wedding.

Busy time at work as affair occurred
Sebring, who is 57 and married, told the Register that the affair lasted six weeks.

No one at the district knew about the relationship until the emails were discovered as the result of a public records request, school leaders said.

Although Sebring has said the affair didn't interfere with her district duties, the emails indicate the conversations spanned the clock on some workdays. One message, sent at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, was nearly 700 words.

By her own description, Sebring's last weeks at the helm of the 31,000-student Des Moines district were packed with responsibilities.

"My top priority is to take care of DMPS through the end of my contract with the district," she wrote in an April 2 email to Caldwell-Johnson. "(T)he next few weeks will be spent finalizing the budget, completing the hiring for next year, addressing some unfinished business with the renovation plans, and working with the instructional leadership to make sure that summer school and leadership training are in place."

But just a few hours later, Sebring was using her district email and laptop to tell her lover: "I have this craving in my body for you, and I can't ignore it."

The former administrator's actions were a violation of public trust, Murphy said Friday.

The explicit email exchanges came at a time when state legislators were embroiled in a debate over what were billed as the most significant education reforms in a generation. The district's charter school - run by Sebring's twin sister, Nina Rasmusson - faced possible closure after months of internal strife. And the board was beginning its search for a new superintendent.

"It was a transitional time, and with what was going on with the charter school ... we were undergoing a lot of things at that time," Murphy said. "It was completely inappropriate."

Sebring: Private life should be private
On Friday, informed of the Register's intention to publish some of the emails, Sebring said she was disappointed.

"I want to say that I do think every individual's entitled to have a private life, even public employees, and I am deeply disappointed that the Register would consider this newsworthy. But it doesn't make me regret having been here in Des Moines, working hard for kids, living in the city - it's a great city. It would be my hope that people be allowed to have a private life and be in public service. If that's not the case, then where will people come from to do the work we do."

On Saturday morning, Sebring repeated earlier acknowledgments that she had made mistakes and that she was sorry. She could not be reached for further comment later in the day.

Rick Green, Register editor and vice president of news, said the Register published a selected set of emails online "so the public can better understand why the Des Moines school board and Sebring agreed on her abrupt and sooner-than-expected departure. Until the Register obtained these emails, board members had not revealed the reason for her immediate resignation."

The Register redacted selected segments of emails that were deemed inappropriate, to comply with guidelines for what's allowed to appear on DesMoinesRegister.com, he said.

Much deliberation went into pursuit of the Sebring story and how to handle the emails between Sebring and her lover, Green said.

"These emails are public record and exchanged on the district's email system," he said. "They speak directly to the public trust between the superintendent of Iowa's largest public school system and her school board, the district's staff, its 31,000 students and their parents."

Accomplishments, but a clouded legacy
Supporters point to significant accomplishments during Sebring's tenure. Des Moines Public Schools ramped up the number of college preparatory classes, bolstered drop-out prevention efforts, established the prestigious International Baccalaureate program and became one of only two districts in the state that offer the ACT college admissions test to 11th-grade students free of charge.

"Unfortunately, there are so many things that are coming to light now that shouldn't take away from that, but certainly leave this cloud of doubt," Caldwell-Johnson said.

Some of the emails Sebring shared with her lover featured long-running philosophical exchanges.

One email offered prescient musing about how she might respond in a time of trial.

"You know that I have wondered whether I will ever be faced with some kind of test of something big..." she writes. "Maybe the test is NOT about how a person reacts in extreme situations, but how one copes with it afterward."

Copyright 2012, Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.

Des Moines Register

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